Updated: Oct 24
We have three basic survival re-flexes, namely: Fight, flight, and freeze
ANCA RAMSDEN, Clinical Psychologist
Here is how it works:
Bob’s wife has had enough. Worn out by his aggression and rage, she is finally ready to leave him after 25 years of marriage.
Bob recalls as a young child trying to make himself invisible, keeping very quiet, and staying out of his father’s way. He was terrified of his father, who would regularly take out his frustrations on his young son in a drunken stupor. When Bob got to his teenage years, he was strong enough to beat his father up – this happened only once, after which he left home. He could never understand why his own mother didn’t leave his father and didn’t protect him when he needed it most. He vowed he would never be like his father.
He fell in love and married his sweetheart, but a few years into the marriage Bob’s anger started surfacing. He was critical of his wife, calling her stupid and making jokes at her expense. She had to be a stay-at-home mom, dinner was ready by six pm every night- the family lived by Bob’s rules. And he showed little interest in their three children, parenting was left up to his wife.
Bob was reserved in his therapy sessions – he had learned as a child to be withholding. He was given simple physical movements to trigger his amygdala to release his survival reflexes. The movements included, for example, moving his head from right to left and back again; and stretching his achilles tendon by pushing his heels out. He is also selected specific emotions that he considered to be problematic for him and that he wished to have better control over. He chose the emotion ‘resentment’ at his first visit.
After completing the physical movements and contemplating a feeling of resentment Bob felt sleepy and his eyes closed. He dozed off for a few minutes. When he opened his eyes he felt spacey. He was given a grounding exercise to stop this dissociative state. He felt more relaxed at the end of his session and left for home. The session was a success – Bob had started his journey to recovery from childhood trauma.
We have three basic survival reflexes, namely fight, flight and freeze. These three reflexes each have corresponding emotions: the fight reflex causes us to feel anger, the flight reflex causes us to feel fear and the freeze reflex causes us to feel apathy and dissociate. Whenever we feel threatened our survival reflexes are automatically activated, even if we
are not consciously aware of this.
The sleepy feeling Bob experienced in his session is a form of dissociation, which is caused by the freeze reflex. Affect regulation therapy (A.R.T) was helping Bob to recover from the trauma of his childhood by triggering the release of this survival reflex. In every A.R.T. session, Bob would experience some dissociation, but over time the dissociative response became reduced until he no longer felt it at all. Throughout his childhood, Bob had been conditioned into a permanent state of stress, with the accompanying feelings of anger, fear, and apathy. Through A.R.T. this conditioning is cleared from his nervous system. He was now free for the first time in his
life to respond to his life experiences in a positive and confident manner.
Starting a new life after several months of therapy, his wife noticed that he was friendlier, more easy-going, more helpful around the house, and more engaged with their children. He had not had a fit of rage in months. There was laughter in the house – no more walking on eggshells.
Bob noticed that he wasn’t flying off the handle anymore, he now had the time to think before he responded. He was feeling more comfortable in himself, the constant tension in the pit of his stomach was gone. He was feeling happier and more loving towards his family – Bob was developing a healthy attachment to the important people in his life. He was released from the prison of childhood trauma.
Anca Ramsden is a Clinical Psychologist (MA, Clin Psyc, HED Teaching Diploma, Certified Auditory Integration trainer), with over 27 years of experience working with adults and children both in a hospital setting (adult psychiatric out-patients and child and family units) and in private practice.
Phone: (02) 9418 3692
Mobile: 0414 414 286